The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection
By Joseph A. Opala
The Gullah are a distinctive group of Black Americans from South Carolina and Georgia in the southeastern United States. They live in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands which runs parallel to the coast.
Because of their geographical isolation and strong community life, the Gullah have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans. They speak a creole language similar to Sierra Leone Krio, use African names, tell African folktales, make African-style handicrafts such as baskets and carved walking sticks, and enjoy a rich cuisine based primarily on rice.
Indeed, rice is what forms the special link between the Gullah and the people of Sierra Leone. During the 1700s the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice would grow well in the moist, semitropical country bordering their coastline. But the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia had no experience with the cultivation of rice, and they needed African slaves who knew how to plant, harvest, and process this difficult crop.
The white plantation owners purchased slaves from various parts of Africa, but they greatly preferred slaves from what they called the "Rice Coast" or "Windward Coast" - the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The plantation owners were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from this area, and Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century.
The Gullah people are directly descended from the slaves who labored on the rice plantations, and their language reflects significant influences from Sierra Leone and the surrounding area. The Gullahs' English-based creole language is strikingly similar to Sierra Leone Krio and contains such identical expressions as bigyai (greedy), pantap (on top of), ohltu (both), tif (steal) yeys (ear), and swit (delicious). But, in addition to words derived from English, the Gullah creole also contains several thousand words and personal names derived from African languages - and a large proportion of these (about 25%) are from languages spoken in Sierra Leone.
The Gullah use such masculine names as Sorie, Tamba, Sanie, Vandi, and Ndapi, and such feminine names as Kadiatu, Fatimata, Hawa, and Isata - all common in Sierra Leone. As late as the 1940s, a Black American linguist found Gullahs in rural South Carolina and Georgia who could recite songs and simple counting in the Guinea/Sierra Leone dialect of Fula. In fact, all of the African texts that Gullah people have preserved are in languages spoken in Sierra Leone and along its borders.
The connection between the Gullah and the people of Sierra Leone is a very special one. Sierra Leone has always had a small population, and Sierra Leonean slaves were always greatly outnumbered on the plantations by slaves from more populous areas of Africa - except in South Carolina and Georgia. The rice plantation zone of coastal South Carolina and Georgia was the only place in the Americas where Sierra Leonean slaves came together in large enough numbers and over a long enough period of time to leave a significant linguistic and cultural impact.
While Nigerians may point to Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti as places where Nigerian culture is still evident, Sierra Leoneans can look to the Gullah of South Carolina and Georgia as a kindred people sharing many common elements of speech, custom, culture, and cuisine.
The Rice and Windward Coasts of West Africa.
South Carolina Rice Plantations
South Carolina is about the same size as Sierra Leone and has a roughly similar geography and culture. There is the "Low Country" which consists of the Sea Islands, the swampy southern coastline, and a wide and fertile arc of coastal plain stretching up to a hundred miles in the interior. Beyond that is the "Upcountry," a region of rolling hills rising gradually to mountains three thousand feet high in the far northwest. Much of the state is humid and semitropical with long, hot summers and mild winters and abundant rainfall reaching seventy inches in some areas. Three-fifths of the state is covered in forest, and a series of rivers flows down in parallel lines to the Atlantic coast.
The first English-speaking settlement in South Carolina was established on the coast in 1670. For the first thirty years the colonists had little success, but by about 1700 they discovered that rice, imported from Asia, grew well in the inland valley swamps of the Low Country. Throughout the 1700s the economy of South Carolina was based overwhelmingly on the cultivation of rice. This product brought consistently high prices in England, and the colony prospered and expanded.
Rice agriculture has been called "the best opportunity for industrial profits which 18th century America afforded." South Carolina became one of the richest of the North American colonies; and Charlestown (now Charleston), its capital and principal port, one of the wealthiest and most fashionable cities in early America. Later, because of the extraordinary success in South Carolina, the rice plantation system was extended farther south into coastal Georgia, where it also prospered.
The South Carolina planters were, at first, completely ignorant of rice cultivation, and their early experiments with this specialized type of agriculture were mostly failures. They soon recognized the advantage of importing slaves from the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, and they generally showed far greater interest in the geographical origins of African slaves than did planters in other North American colonies.
The South Carolina rice planters were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from the "Rice Coast," the "Windward Coast," the "Gambia," and "Sierra Leon;" and the slave traders in Africa soon learned that South Carolina was an especially profitable market for slaves from those areas. When slave traders arrived in Charlestown with slaves from the rice-growing region, they were careful to advertise their origin on auction posters or in newspaper announcements, sometimes noting that the slaves were "accustomed to the planting of rice." Traders who arrived in Charlestown with slaves from other parts of Africa where rice was not traditionally grown, such as Nigeria, often found that their slaves fetched lower prices. In some cases, they could sell no slaves at all and had to sail away to another port.
The South Carolina and Georgia colonists ulimately adopted a system of rice cultivation that drew heavily on the labor patterns and technical knowledge of their African slaves. During the growing season the slaves on the rice plantations moved through the fields in a line, hoeing rhytmically and singing work songs to keep in unison. At harvest time the women processed the rice by pounding it in large wooden mortars and pestels, virtually identical to those used in West Africa, and then "fanning" the rice in large round winnowing baskets to separate the grain and chaff.
The slaves may also have contributed to the system of sluices, banks, and ditches used on the South Carolina and Georgia plantations. West African farmers traditionally cultivated local varieties of wet rice on the flood plains and dry rice on the hillsides. During the 1500s the Portugese introduced superior types of paddy rice from Asia, and travellers in the 1700s noted that West African farmers - including the Temne of Sierra Leone - were constructing elaborate irrigation systems for rice cultivation. In South Carolina and Georgia the slaves simply continued with many of the methods of rice farming to which they were accustomed in Africa.
Bance Island in Sierra Leone
Between about 1750 and 1800, Bance Island was one of the major slave trading operations on the Rice Coast of West Africa. Bance Island (now Bunce) is located in the Sierra Leone River about twenty miles above modern Freetown. It is a small island, only one-third of a mile long and unihabited today, but in the days of the Atlantic slave trade it was an economically strategic point. Because Bance Island was at the limit of navigability for ocean-going vessels, it was the natural meeting place for European slave traders arriving in large sailing ships and African traders following the rivers down from the interior.
As early as 1672 the Royal African Company of England established a commercial fort on Bance Island, but that company was poorly managed and abandoned its operation. Then, about 1750, the London firm of Grant, Sargent and Oswald took control of Bance Island and made it into a commercial success. The London partners rebuilt the fort, established a shipyard, assembled a fleet of small vessels to cruise the Rice Coast in search of slaves, and expanded the African work force. They also concentrated heavily on supplying slaves to one particular market - Charlestown, South Carolina, where local rice planters were eager to purchase slaves from Sierra Leone and the neighboring areas.
Richard Oswald was the principal partner in the London firm that operated on Bance Island. About 1756, Oswald established a close personal and business relationship with Henry Laurens, one of the wealthiest rice planters and slave dealers in the Colony of South Carolina. As Laurens papers have been preserved by the South Carolina Historical Society (and recently published), we can reconstruct the complicated business arrangements between these two men. Oswald's agents at Bance Island dispatched several ships a year to Charlestown, each containing between 250 and 350 slaves and goods such as ivory and camwood (a red dyewood).
Bance Island in the Sierra Leone River, 1805. This slave "factory" included a "great house" for the Chief Agent, a slave yard, slave houses, storerooms, dormitories, watch towers, a jetty, and a fortification with sixteen cannons. Bance Island supplied numerous slaves to the Charlestown market in the mid - and late 18th century.
Laurens advertised the slaves, then sold them at auction to local rice planters for a ten percent commission. He used the substantial earnings from the sale to buy locally produced Carolina rice which he sent to Oswald in London, together with the ivory and camwood, and often in the same ship that brought the slaves from Africa. If Oswald's ships were headed directly back to Sierra Leone, Laurens sometimes loaded ship building supplies such as masts, spars and plank - the products of South Carolina's forest industry. At times, the wealthy Laurens sent his own ship directly from Charlestown to Bance Island to obtain Sierra Leonean slaves for his expansive rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. In a letter to Oswald, Henry Laurens once noted that slaves from Bance Island were "as advantageous as any" imported into South Carolina.
The profitable slave trade connection between Oswald and Laurens - between Sierra Leone and South Carolina - was significant enough to affect the course of American history. During the Revolutionary War Henry Laurens served as President of the Continental Congress (the provisional government) and was later appointed American envoy to Holland. Laurens was captured en route to his post by the British Navy and was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of high treason - the highest ranking American official ever captured during the Revolutionary War.
Richard Oswald posted bail for his American business partner; and Laurens remained in London until the conclusion of the War, when he was freed in exchange for the British commander in North America. Laurens was then appointed as one of the four American Peace Comissioners who negotiated United States independence under the Treaty of Paris. But, amazingly, it was Richard Oswald who was named to head the British negotiating team, no doubt, because of his American business contacts and friendship with Laurens. United States independence was, thus, negotiated, at least in part, between a British slave trader with operations in Sierra Leone and his agent for rice-growing slaves in South Carolina. The slave trade connection, based on rice, had helped to boost both men into positions of wealth and international prominence.
For a number of years after the Revolutionary War, American merchants could not buy slaves and goods arriving on British ships - but slaves from Sierra Leone were far too valuable in South Carolina to be turned away, and other arrangements were soon found. Reports from the 1780s show that Danish merchants were buying two thousand slaves a year at Bance Island, and during the same decade newspaper advertisements in Charlestown were announcing the arrival of Danish ships with slaves from the "Windward Coast." At "Bunce Island" today one can still find a cannon from a Danish ship dated 1780 and the grave of a Danish sea captain who died in 1783. There was money to be made by anyone who could bring slaves from Sierra Leone to South Carolina.
Henry Laurens (1742-1792) Laurens was one of the wealthiest rice planters and slave dealers in colonial South Carolina. During the 1750s and 1760s he acted as Charlestown agent for the owners of Bance Island. Laurens later became a high-ranking official during the Revolutionary War.
Origin of the Gullah
The Gullah People are descendants of the slaves who worked the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. They still live in rural communities in the coastal region and on the Sea Islands of those two states, and they still retain many elements of African language and culture. Anyone interested in the Gullah must ask how they have managed to keep their special identity and so much more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans. The answer is to be found in the warm, semitropical climate of coastal South Carolina and Georgia; in the system of rice agriculture adopted there in the 1700s; and in a disease environment imported unintentionally from Africa. These factors combined almost three hundred years ago to produce an atmosphere of geographical and social isolation among the Gullah which has lasted, to some extent, up until the present day.
The climate of coastal South Carolina and Georgia was excellent for the cultivation of rice, but it proved equally suitable for the spread of tropical diseases. The African slaves brought malaria and yellow fever which thrived on the swampy coastal plain and especially around the flooded rice plantations. The slaves had some inherited resistance to these tropical diseases, but their masters were extremely vulnerable. The white planters moved their houses away from the rice fields and adopted the custom of leaving their farms altogether during the rainy summer and autumn months when fever ran rampant. The plantations were run on a day-to-day basis by a few white managers assisted, quite often, by certain talented and trusted slaves working as foremen or "drivers." The white population in the region stayed relatively low, but the importation of African slaves increased as the rice plantation system expanded and generated more and more profits. By 1708, there was a black majority in South Carolina, a unique situation among the North American Colonies. A European arriving in Charlestown in the 1730s remarked that "Carolina looks more like a negro country than a country settled by white people."
The Gullah slaves in coastal South Carolina and Georgia lived in a very different situation from that of slaves in other North American colonies. The Gullahs had little contact with whites. They experienced a largely isolated community life on the rice plantations, and their isolation and numerical strength enabled them to preserve a great many African cultural traditions. By the early 1700s the Gullah slaves were already bringing together distinctive language, rituals, customs, music, crafts, and diet drawing on the cultures of the various African tribes they represented. The emergence of the Gullah was due, above all, to the isolation of black slaves in a disease environment hostile to whites and to their numerical predominance in the region - but another important factor was the continuing importation of slaves directly from Africa, and especially from the rice-growing areas along the West Coast. The South Carolina and Georgia planters realized that the specialized nature of their crop required a constant influx of slaves born in Africa, not in the West Indies or in the neighboring colonies. So, a black community, already isolated from whites, was being constantly renewed by forced immigration from Africa.
The isolation of the Gullah community lasted throughout the period of slavery and continued even after the U.S. Civil War (1860-65) and the emancipation of the slaves. The Gullahs on the mainland continued to work on the rice plantations as wage laborers after gaining their freedom, but the rice economy of South Carolina and Georgia collapsed after about 1890 due to competition with rice farmers farther west in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.
By 1900, the rice plantations were all abandoned, and the fields were returning to swampland. The Gullah people were left in an area of little commercial importance and of little interest to the outside world. On the Sea Islands, the rice and cotton plantations were all abandoned after the Civil War, leaving the Gullahs there in one of the most geographically isolated regions in the United States. The first bridges were not built until the 1920s, and a decade later there were still adults on the islands who had never visited the U.S. mainland. But World War II and the great changes in American life since then have had a profound impact on the Gullah community. Many people have found economic opportunities outside the area, and return only occasionally for holidays and family gatherings. The Gullah people are no longer as isolated, and there is increasing influence through the media of American popular culture. But the Gullah continue to regard themselves as a distinct community, and they continue to cherish their unique heritage.
Gullah Customs and Traditions
Gulla culture seems to emphasize elements shared by Africans from different areas. The Gullahs' ancestors were, after all, coming from many different tribes, or ethnic groups, in Africa. Those from the Rice Coast, the largest group, included the Wolof, Mandinka, Fula, Baga, Susu, Limba, Temne, Mende, Vai, Kissi, Kpelle, etc. - but there were also slaves brought from the Gold Coast, Calabar, Congo, and Angola. The Gullah slaves adopted beliefs and practices that were familiar to Africans from these widely separated regions.
In most cases, we cannot say that a particular Gullah custom is from a particular African tribe; but we can often point more generally to West Africa, the Western Sudan, the Rice Coast, etc. And Gullah traditions are not, of course, all purely African. The Gullah became Christians, for instance, but their style of worship reflected their African heritage. In slavery days they developed a ceremony called "ring shout" in which participants danced in a ritual fashion in a circle amidst the rhythmical pounding of sticks and then, at the culminating moment, experienced possession by the Holy Spirit while shouting expressions of praise and thanksgiving.
"The Old Plantation," South Carolina, about 1790. This famous painting shows Gullah slaves dancing and playing musical instruments derived from Africa. Scholars unaware of the Sierra Leone slave trade connection have interpreted the two female figures as performing a "scarf" dance. Sierra Leoneans can easily recognize that they are playing the shegura, a woman's instrument (rattle) characteristic of the Mende and neighboring tribes.
The ring shout raises the subject of cultural change among the Gullah, as this custom, like some other Gullah practices, seems to have completely died out. Most of what we know of Gullah customs and traditions comes from studies done in the 1930s and 1940s before the isolation of the Gullah community began to break down. Some of the customs reported then have, no doubt, disappeared like the ring shout; but others, quite clearly, have not. Visitors to the South Carolina Sea Islands still find the Gullahs' doors and windows painted blue to ward off witches and evil spirits. And tourists travelling by car through coastal South Carolina and Georgia on their way south to Florida still encounter Gullah women selling their traditional baskets on the roadsides. These handsome baskets greatly resemble the Sierra Leonean shukublay.
A few examples of Gullah customs and traditions are sufficient to convey their distinct spirit.
Gullah burial customs begin with a drum beat to inform people that someone in town has died. Mirrors are turned to the wall so the corpse cannot be reflected. The funeral party takes the body to the cemetery, but waits at the gate to ask permission of the ancestors to enter. Participants dance around the grave, singing and praying, then smash bottles and dishes over the site to "break the chain" so that no one else in the family will soon die. Then, the funeral group returns to town and cooks a large meal, leaving a portion on the verandah for the departed soul. In slavery days some Gullahs called this cooking ceremony saraka, a term derived from Arabic and familiar to most West Africans.
The Gullah believe in witchcraft, which they call wudu, wanga, joso, or juju. They say that witches can cast a spell by putting powerful herbs or roots under a person's pillow or at a place where he usually walks. There are special individuals called "Root Doctor" or "Doctor Buzzard" who can provide protection against withcraft or withdraw the effect of a curse. The Gullah also believe in dangerous spirits capable of enslaving a person by controlling his will. They sometimes paper the walls of their houses with newsprint or put a folded bit of newspaper inside a shoe, believing that the spirit must first read each and every word before taking action. This custom is clearly derived from the common West African practice of wearing a protective amulet, called sebeh or grigri, containing written passages from the Koran.
The Gullah possess a rich collection of animal fables with such stock characters as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Snake. The plots of these stories always involve competition among the animals, which have distinct human personalities; and the situations and predicaments are virtually identical to those told in stories in Africa. The main character in the Gullah tales is Brer Rabbit, a clever figure who often outwits his bigger and stronger animal opponents, but whose dishonest tactics sometimes lead him into serious trouble. Brer Rabbit is analagous to the "trickster" found in animal stories throughout Africa and represented in Mende, Temne, and Limba tales as the spider and, in Krio stories, as "Koni Rabbit." The Gullah story-telling tradition is the only part of Gullah culture widely known in the United States. The writer Joel Chandler Harris popularized Gullah stories a hundred years ago in his book on the tales of "Uncle Remus."
South Carolina Gullah, about 1900. Charleston street vendor.
Gullah arts and crafts are also distinctly African in spirit. During slavery times and the decades of isolation that followed, the Gullah made a wide assortment of artifacts, some indistinguishable from West African crafts. In museums in South Carolina and Georgia one can see wooden mortars and pestles, rice "fanners," clay pots, calabash containers, baskets, palm leaf brooms, drums, and hand-woven cotton blankets dyed with indigo. In modern times Gullah men have continued their wood carving tradition, making elaborate grave monuments, human figures, and walking sticks. Gullah women sew quilts organized in strips like African country cloth, and still make their finely crafted baskets.
Finally, the Gullah diet is still based heavily on rice, reflecting the Rice Coast origins of many of their ancestors. Two traditional dishes are "rice and greens" and "rice and okra," similar to Sierra Leone's plasas and rice and okra soup. The Gullah (and other South Carolinians) also make "red rice" which, when served with a "gumbo" containing okra, fish, tomatoes, and hot peppers, greatly resembles West African jollof rice. In fact, one South Carolina writer, who has visited West Africa, refers to jollof rice as a "typical South Carolina meal." In remote rural areas the Gullahs have also traditionally made a boiled corn paste served in leaves, similar to Sierra Leonean agidi, and a heavy porridge of wheat flour which they call fufu.
The Gullah Language
The Gullah language is what linguists call an English-based creole language. Creoles arise in the context of trade, colonialism, and slavery when people of diverse backgrounds are thrown together and must forge a common means of communication. According to one view, creole languages are essentially hybrids that blend linguistic influences from a variety of different sources. In the case of the Gullah, the vocabulary is largely from the English "target language," the speech of the socially and economically dominant group; but the African "substrate languages" have altered the pronunciation of almost all the English words, influenced the grammar and sentence structure, and provided a sizeable minority of the vocabulary. Many early scholars made the mistake of viewing the Gullah language as "broken English," because they failed to recognize the strong underlying influence of African languages. But linguists today view Gullah, and other creoles, as full and complete languages with their own systematic grammatical structures.
The British dominated the slave trade in the 18th century, and during that period an English-based creole spread along the West African coast from Senegal to Nigeria. This hybrid language served as a means of communication between British slave traders and local African traders, but it also served as a lingua franca, or common language, among Africans of different tribes. Some of the slaves taken to America must have known creole English before they left Africa, and on the plantations their speech seems to have served as a model for the other slaves.
Many linguists argue that this early West African Creole English was the ancestral language that gave rise to modern English-based creoles in West Africa (Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin, etc.) as well as to the English-based creoles spoken by black populations in the Americas (Gullah, Jamaican Creole, Guyana Creole, etc.). All of these modern creole languages would, thus, fall into the same broad family group, which linguist Ian Hancock has called the "English-based Atlantic Creoles." This theory explains the striking similarities found among these many languages spoken in scattered areas on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It also show that the slaves brought the rudiments of the Gullah language directly from Africa.
The first scholar to make a serious study of the Gullah language was the late Dr. Lorenzo Turner, who published his findings in 1949. As a Black American, Dr. Turner was able to win the confidence of the Gullah people, and he revealed many aspects of their language that were previously unknown. Dr. Turner found that Gullah men and women all have African nicknames or "basket names" in addition to their English names for official use; and he showed that the Gullah language, like other Atlantic Creoles, contains a substantial minority of vocabulary words borrowed directly from African substrate languages. Altogether, Dr. Turner was able to identify more than four thousand words and personal names of African origin and to assign these, on an individual basis, to specific African languages.
But Dr. Turner also made a spectacular discovery that certain Gullah men and women, living in isolated rural areas of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1940s, could still recall simple texts in various African languages - texts passed from generation to generation and still intelligible! He identified Mende and Vai phrases embedded in Gullah songs; Mende passages in Gullah stories; and an entire Mende song, apparently a funeral dirge. Dr. Turner also found some Gullah people who could count from one to nineteen in the Gullah/Sierra Leone dialect of Fula. Although his Gullah informants knew that these expressions were in African languages, and in some cases knew the proper translation, they did not know which specific languages they were reciting.
P.E.H. Hair, a British historian, later published a review of Dr. Turner's work in which he noted that Sierra Leone languages have made a "major contribution" to the development of the Gullah language. Dr. Hair pointed to the "astonishing" fact that all of the African texts known to be preserved among the Gullah are in languages spoken in Sierra Leone. Mende, which accounts for most of the African passages collected by Turner, is spoken almost entirely in Sierra Leone, while Vai and the specific dialect of Fula are found on the borders with Liberia and Guinea.
Sea Island Gullahs, about 1930.
But Dr. Hair also noted that a "remarkably large proportion" of the four thousand African personal names and loanwords in the Gullah language come from Sierra Leone. He calculated that twenty-five percent of the African names and twenty percent of the African vocabulary words are from Sierra Leonean languages, principally Mende and Vai. Dr. Hair concluded that South Carolina and Georgia are the only places in the Americas where Sierra Leonean languages have exerted "anything like" this degree of influence.
The Gullahs' African personal names and African vocabulary words include many items that are familiar in Sierra Leone today. The Gullah have drawn their African nicknames from various sources, including African first, or given names; clan names; and the African tribal names of their ancestors. They use the masculine names Bala, Sorie, Salifu, Jah, and Lomboi; and the feminine names Mariama, Fatu, Hawa and Jilo. The Gullahs also use as nicknames the clan names Bangura, Kalawa, Sesay, Sankoh, Marah, Koroma, and Bah; and the Sierra Leonean tribal names Limba, Loko, Yalunka, Susu, Kissi, and Kono. Gullah loanwords from Sierra Leonean languages, used in everyday speech, include joso, "witchcraft" (Mende njoso, forest spirit); gafa, "evil spirit" (Mende ngafa, masked "devil"); wanga, "charm" (Temne an-wanka, fetish or "swear"); bento, "coffin" (Temne an-bento, bier); defu, "rice flour" (Vai defu, rice flour); do, "child" (Mende ndo, child); and kome, "to gather" (Mende kome, a meeting).
The Gullah language, considered as a whole, is also remarkably similar to Sierra Leone Krio - so similar that the two languages are probably mutually intelligible. Krio is, of course, the native language of the Krios, the descendants of freed slaves; but it is also the national lingua franca, the most commonly spoken language in Sierra Leone today. The West African Creole English of the slave trade era gave rise to both Krio and Gullah, as well as to many other English-based creoles in West Africa and the West Indies. All of these languages, it may be said, share many common elements of vocabulary and grammar. Sierra Leone Krio expressions such as bigyai (greedy), pantap (on top of) udat (who?), and usai (where?) are found in almost identical form in Gullah, as well as in many other related creoles. But the linguist Ian Hancock has also pointed to unique similarities between Krio and Gullah - features of vocabulary, grammar, and the sound system found in these two languages, but in none of the other Atlantic Creoles. These common elements include, among others, the Krio expressions bohboh (boy), titi (girl), enti (not so?), and blant (a verb auxiliary) which appear in Gullah as buhbuh, tittuh, enty, and blang. Dr. Hancock has argued, reasonably enough, that these unique similarities, as well as many loanwords in Gullah from Sierra Leonean indigenous languages, must reflect a significant slave trade connection between Sierra Leone and the Gullah area.
We are now in a position to draw a clear picture of the language connection between Sierra Leone and South Carolina and Georgia. By about 1750 there was probably a local creole dialect spoken in Sierra Leone and, perhaps, on neighboring parts of the Rice Coast - a variant of the broader West African Creole English, but with its own unique forms and expressions. Some of the Rice Coast slaves taken to South Carolina and Georgia already spoke this Rice Coast dialect, and on the rice plantations their creole speech became a model for the other slaves. The Gullah language, thus, developed directly from this distinctive Rice Coast creole, acquiring loanwords from the "substrate languages" of the African slaves from Sierra Leone and elsewhere. In Sierra Leone itself, the Rice Coast creole continued to flourish throughout the late 1700s, so that when the freed slaves, ancestors of the Krios, arrived at the end of the century, they found the language already widely spoken among the indigenous peoples along the coast.
Indeed, slave traders' accounts from before the founding of Freetown make it clear that a form of creole English was already spoken in Sierra Leone. The emerging Krio community adopted the local creole as its native speech, enriching it with new expressions reflecting the diverse backgrounds of the freed slaves. So, Krio and Gullah both derive from an early slave trade era Rice Coast creole dialect. Each language has gone its separate way over the past two hundred and fifty years, but even now the similarities are astonishing to linguists and laymen alike.
Finally, the word "Gullah," itself, seems to reflect the Rice Coast origins of many of the slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia. Lorenzo Turner attributed "Gullah" to Gola, a small tribe on the Sierra Leone - Liberia border where the Mende and Vai territories came together. But "Gullah" may also derive from Gallinas, another name for the Vai, or from Galo, the Mende word for the Vai people. The Gullah also call themselves "Geechee," which Dr. Turner attributed to the Kissi tribe (pronounced geezee), which inhabits a large area adjoining the Mende, where modern Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea converge. Given the Mende and Vai texts preserved by the Gullah, and the significant percentages of Mende and Vai names and loanwords in the Gullah language, these interpretations seem to have considerable merit.
Black Seminoles - Gullahs Who Escaped from Slavery
The Black Seminoles are a small offshoot of the Gullah who escaped from the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. They built their own settlements on the Florida frontier, fought a series of wars to preserve their freedom, and were scattered across North America. They have played a significant role in American history, but have never received the recognition they deserve. Some Gullah slaves managed to escape from coastal South Carolina and Georgia south into the Florida peninsula. In the 18th century Florida was a vast tropical wilderness, covered with jungles and malaria-ridden swamps. The Spanish claimed Florida, but they used it only as a buffer between the British Colonies and their own settled territories farther south. They wanted to keep Florida as a dangerous wilderness frontier, so they offered a refuge to escaped slaves and renegade Indians from neighboring South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullahs were establishing their own free settlements in the Florida wilderness by at least the late 1700s.
| Black Seminole Subchief Gopher John|
With Kind Permission of the Florida State Archives Online
They built separate villages of thatched-roof houses surrounded by fields of corn and swamp rice, and they maintained friendly relations with the mixed population of refugee Indians. In time, the two groups came to view themselves as parts of the samely loosely organized tribe, in which blacks held important positions of leadership. The Gullahs adopted Indian clothing, while the Indians acquired a taste for rice and appreciation for Gullah music and folklore.
The two groups led an independent life in the wilderness of northern Florida, rearing several generations of children in freedom - and they recognized the American settlers and slave owners as their common enemies. The Americans called the Florida Indians "Seminoles," from the Spanish word cimmaron, meaning "wild" or "untamed;" and they called the runaway Gullahs "Seminole Negroes" or "Indian Negroes." Modern historians have called these free Gullah frontiersmen the "Black Seminoles."
The Seminole settlements in Florida increased as more runaway slaves and renegade Indians escaped south - and conflict with the Americans was, sooner or later, inevitable. There were skirmishes in 1812 and 1816. In 1818, General Andrew Jackson led an American army into Florida to claim it for the United States, and war finally erupted. The blacks and Indians fought side-by-side in a desperate struggle to stop the American advance, but they were defeated and driven south into the more remote wilderness of central and southern Florida.
General Jackson (later President) referred to this First Seminole War as an "Indian and Negro War." In 1835, the Second Seminole War broke out, and this full-scale guerilla war would last for seven years and claim the lives of 1,500 American soldiers. The Black Seminoles waged the fiercest resistance, as they feared that capture or surrender meant death or return to slavery. The American commander, General Jesup, informed the War Department that, "This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war"; and the U.S. Congressman of the period commented that these black fighters were "contending against the whole military power of the United States." When the Army finally captured the Black Seminoles, officers refused to return them to slavery - fearing that these seasoned warriors, accustomed to their freedom, would wreak havoc on the Southern plantations. In 1842, the Army forcibly removed them, along with their Indian comrades, to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the unsettled West.
The Black Seminoles, exiled from their Florida strongholds, were forced to continue their struggle for freedom on the Western frontier. In Oklahoma, the Government put them under the authority of the Creek Indians, slave owners who tried to curb their freedom; and white slave traders came at night to kidnap their women and children. In 1850, a group of Black Seminoles and Seminole Indians escaped across Texas to the desert badlands of northern Mexico. They established a free settlement and, as in Florida, began to attract runaway slaves from across the border.
In 1855, a heavily armed band of Texas Rangers rode into Mexico to destroy the Seminole settlement, but the blacks and Indians stopped them and forced them back into the U.S. The Indians soon returned to Oklahoma, but the Black Seminoles remained in Mexico, fighting constantly to protect their settlement from the marauding Comanche and Apache Indians.
In 1870, after emancipation of the slaves in the United States, the U.S. Cavalry in southern Texas invited some of the Black Seminoles to return and join the Army - and it officially established the "Seminole Negro Indian Scouts." In 1875, three of the Scouts won the Congressional Medal of Honor - America's highest military decoration - in a single engagement with the Comanche Indians on the Pecos River. The Black Seminoles had fled the rice plantations, built their own free settlements in the Florida wilderness, and then fought almost continuously for fifty years to preserve their freedom. It is little wonder they should provide some of the finest soldiers in the U.S. Cavalry.
Today, there are still small Black Seminole communities scattered by war across North America and the West Indies. The "Black Indians" live on Andros Island in the Bahamas where their ancestors escaped from Florida after the First Seminole War. The "Seminole Freedmen," the largest group, live in rural Seminole County, Oklahoma. The "Muscogos" dwell in the dusty desert town of Nacimiento in the State of Coahuila in Northern Mexico.
And, finally, the Scouts live in Brackenville, Texas outside the walls of the old fort where their grandfathers served in the U.S. Cavalry. These groups have lost almost all contact with one another, but they have all retained the memory of their ancestors' gallant fight for freedom in the Florida wilderness. In 1978, Dr. Ian Hancock discovered that elders among the Texas Scouts still speak a dialect of Gullah - 140 years after their ancestors were exiled from Florida and as much as 200 years after their early ancestors escaped from rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia!
In 1980, this writer found that elderly people among the Oklahoma Seminole Freedmen also speak Gullah, while many younger people remember the words and phrases once used by their grandparents. Both the Oklahoma and Texas groups, though deeply conscious of their Florida heritage, were unaware of their connection with the Gullah in South Carolina and Georgia. They did not know precisely where their slave ancestors had come from before fleeing into the Florida wilderness. The Oklahoma Seminole Freedmen still possess a rich traditional culture combining both African and American Indian elements. They continue to eat rice as a characteristic part of their diet, sometimes applying a sauce of okra and spinach leaves - like the Gullah, and like their distant relatives in West Africa.
The Gullah Today
The Gullah still form a strong, cohesive community in South Carolina and Georgia. It is true that their isolation has been breaking down for the past forty years. Many have left the rural areas for jobs in the cities. Young people are attending university and finding professional positions away from home. Television, telephones, bridges, good roads, and ferries have come to the once, most remote parts of the Gullah area - and many "old fashioned" customs have been lost. But the Gullah still hold to their special identity, and they still take pride in their common heritage. Those who have moved away often return for family gatherings to expose their children to grandparents, to Gullah lore, and to the local life.
Indeed, Gullah traditions still continue in many rural areas of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. In 1979, representatives of the Summer Institute of Linguistics conducted a survey in the region to determine how many people still speak the Gullah language. To their amazement, they found over one hundred thousand Gullah speakers, of whom ten thousand spoke only Gullah - no English at all. The Institute concluded that the Gullah community and the Gullah language are viable and will continue to be so for the forseeable future; and it has embarked on a ten-year project to devise a system of writing for Gullah, to translate the New Testament into Gullah, and to teach Gullah people to read and write their own language.
The Gullah are also showing an increasing spirit of community service and self-help. There have been problems in recent years on the Sea Islands, once the most remote part of Gullah country, where land developers have made huge profits constructing tourist resorts, luxury housing, golf courses, and country clubs for wealthy people attracted to the mild climate and island scenery. Land values have jumped from a few hundred dollars an acre to many thousands; and some Gullah people, who sold their land, felt that they had not been paid the fair market value. But educated Gullahs have established the Penn Center on the site of an early mission school on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. The center is devoted to community service - to advising Gullah people about their legal rights and the economic problems confronting them. The Center has also established a museum displaying Gullah arts and crafts, and has recently begun a project to collect and preserve Gullah folklore and oral traditions.
Mrs. Ida Wilson, coastal South Carolina, 1965. Gullah women still offer their baskets for sale along Route 17 north of Charleston. These baskets are constructed almost exactly like the Sierra Leone shukublay.
The Oklahoma Seminole Freedmen, the largest of the scatterred Black Seminole groups, have also shown a high level of community spirit. The Freedmen, numbering about two thousand, form two of the fourteen "bands" of the Seminole Indian Nation of Oklahoma and, by tradition, have controlled six of the forty-two seats on the Tribal Council. They have always participated keenly in Seminole tribal affairs, but in recent years those affairs have become more and more controversial. In 1977, the Seminoles won a $17 million judgement in the courts as compensation for the lands their ancestors lost in Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835-42).
Some factions among the Seminole Indians objected to sharing the award with the Seminole Freedmen, but the Freedmen obtained a Federal Court injunction halting disbursement of the funds until the issue is fairly resolved. The Freedmen are maintaining that the Black Seminoles were pioneers in Florida; that they were part of the Seminole tribe; that they shed their blood in defense of Florida lands; and that, like the Indians, their descendants deserve compensation for the seizure of that land. The Freedmen are now trying to settle the issue through consultation with the tribe, rather than through divisive legal action. They have also made efforts to contact other Black Seminole groups which, although no longer in contact with the tribe, they feel have the right to share in the award.
American historians now recognize that the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia have come in large measure from the rice-growing region of South Africa - but they have not placed enough specific emphasis on Sierra Leone. Scholars have looked at shipping records on the American side which refer only very generally to the "Rice Coast" or "Windward Coast" as the origins of the slave cargoes, but they have not yet examined the histories of specific slave trading bases in West Africa, like Bance Island. They have also failed to look beyond documentary evidence, to the language and culture of the Gullah people. They have ignored the remarkable similarities between Gullah and Sierra Leone Krio, and the high percentage of Gullah names and loanwords from Sierra Leone languages; and the fact that all of the African texts remembered by modern Gullahs are in the languages spoken in Sierra Leone, especially Mende. It is now up to students of Sierra Leone to review the record of slave trading on both sides of the Atlantic for more evidence of the connection with South Carolina and Georgia. They must also examine the language and culture of the Gullah people against their own detailed knowledge of the languages and cultures of Sierra Leone. Studies of this sort will, no doubt, reveal even more evidence of significant historical and cultural connections.
The Black Seminoles are another subject requiring serious attention. We must recognize that 18th century Florida was, in many ways, an African frontier. The Gullah runaways were the only people capable of taming the Florida wilderness at that time. They possessed resistance to tropical diseases, knowledge of tropical agriculture, and a way of life remarkably unchanged from Africa. While the white American frontier was expanding west and south into a temperate climate suited to Europeans, an African frontier was developing in the swamps and jungles of Florida. When the two finally collided, there was a series of conflicts resulting in a full-scale "Negro War" lasting for seven years and claiming hundreds of American lives.
Scholars must examine the whole chain of events leading from the Rice Coast of Africa; to the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia; to the Florida wilderness, where rice agriculture and resistance to tropical diseases made possible a successful and independent life. Many U.S. soldiers died of malaria and yellow fever in the Florida Wars, but an American medical doctor of the period remarked that the Black Seminoles were the "finest looking people I have ever seen." In a land deadly to whites, the Gullah frontiersmen not only survived, but prospered.
There is an enduring kinship between the Gullah people and the people of Sierra Leone. The modern Gullahs and Black Seminoles are especially interested in their African origins and proud of their African cultural heritage. Sierra Leoneans, on their part, have every reason to feel proud that a Black American community has been able to preserve so much Sierra Leonean cultural heritage, and that a portion of them waged the longest and fiercest struggle against slavery in United States history. It would be fitting for exchanges to take place between Sierra Leoneans and the Gullahs or Black Seminoles, and it seems almost certain that the two sides would have much to say to one another.
A Sierra Leonean woman, doing graduate study at the University of South Carolina several years ago, chanced to meet some Gullah people on a brief holiday to the South Carolina sea shore. Recalling the experience much later, she remarked with amazement: "They speak our language!"
"De Fox en de Crow"
A Gullah Story
This story was recorded in South Carolina about 1923 by the writer Ambrose Gonzales, and published in his collection With Aesop along the Black Border. The Gullah language at that time was "deeper" or more conservative than that generally spoken today. The excerpts that appear below are reproduced in the spelling system devised by Gonzales, while the Krio translations are in a system developed by the Sierra Leonean writer Thomas Decker. If universal linguistic symbols (IPA) were used, the Gullah and Krio texts would appear even more similar. The Gullah and Krio words de/di (the), ooman/uman (woman), enty/enti (not so?), tief/tif (steal), teet/tit (teeth), and yez/yeys (ears) are, in fact, pronounced in almost exactly the same ways. The reader should also note that sentence structures are almost identical and that many grammatical elements are the same. Both languages employ fuh/foh, bin fuh/bin foh, and duh/dey as pre-verbal markers to indicate the infinitive, conditional, and progressive.
De Fox en de Crow
De Fox en de Crow tells the story of a crafty fox who manages to trick a lady crow into dropping a piece of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. The crow stole the meat from a white man, who was going to give it to his dog, and then flew to safety on the limb of a nearby tree. The fox reasons that, as a woman, the crow must like to talk; and, if he can persuade her to open her mouth and speak, she will have to drop the prize. The fox flatters the crow in various ways, praising her theft of the meat, her flying abilities, her "stylish" plumage, etc. - but the crow pretends not to listen and holds tightly to the meat.
The fox finally discovers the bird's weakness when he praises her singing voice, notoriously bad in crows. The crow lets out a long, ugly screech, trying to impress her suiter, and drops her prize to the ground. The fox picks it up and says: "Tengky fuh de meat, tittuh" ... "your voice is very good because it's my breakfast bell, but, as for your common sense, it ain't worth much."
Translations by Joseph A. Opala.
Den, Fox staat fuh talk. E say to eself, e say,
Dish yuh crow duh ooman, enty? Ef a kin suade
um fuh talk, him haffa op'n e mout, enty?
En ef e op'n e mout, enty de meat fuh drap out?
Fox call to de Crow: "Mawnin tittuh," e say.
"Uh so glad you tief da meat fum de buckruh,
cause him bin fuh trow-um-way pan de dog...
E mek me bex fuh see man do shishuh ting lukkah dat."
Crow nebbuh crack e teet! All-time Fox duh talk,
Crow mout shet tight pan de meat,
en e yez cock fuh lissin.
Sierra Leone Krio:
Den, Fohx stat foh tohk. I sey to insef, i sey,
"Dis Kro ya na umen, enti? If a kin pasweyed
am foh tohk, i get foh opin in moht, enti?
En if i opin in moht, enti di mit go fohdohm?"
Fohx kohl di Kro: "Mohnin titi," i sey.
A so gladi you tif da mit frohm di weytman,
bikohs i bin foh trowey am to di dohg...
I meyk a vex foh si man du tin leke dat."
Kro nohba opin in tit! Ohl di tem Fohx dey tohk,
Kro moht set tait pan di mit,
en in yeys kak foh lisin.
Then, the fox started to talk. He said to himself, he said,
"This here crow is a woman, not so? If I can persuade
her to talk, she has to open her mouth, not so?
And if she opens her mouth, isn't it true the meat will
Fox called to the Crow: "Morning girl," he said.
"I am so glad you stole that meat from the white man,
because he would have thrown it away to the dog...
It makes me vexed to see a man do such a thing as that!
Crow never cracked open her teeth! All the time Fox was talking,
Crow's mouth was shut tight on the meat,
and her ears were crooked to listen.
A Gullah Song in Mende
Dr. Lorenzo Turner recorded this song in Harris Neck, Georgia in the early 1930s from a Gullah Woman named Amelia Dawley. The original version contained ten lines, as some were repeated once or twice. Over the years, the Gullah people who preserved the song changed the pronunciation slightly and deleted a number of one-syllable words, but the text is still understandable to a modern Mende speaker. In fact, the song contains a number of dialectal features characteristic of the Wanjama Mende who dwell in Pujehun District in far southern Sierra Leone, where the Mende and Vai regions border.
This is a typical Mende funeral song (finya wulo) performed by women as they pound rice into flour for a sacrifice to the dead. Mende women traditionally remain in town preparing for the sacrifice while the men are in the cemetery preparing the grave. This song was probably handed down among the Gullah from mother to daughter, mother to daughter, through the generations.
The Mende spelling is somewhat altered, as the Mende alphabet contains some special linguistic symbols which cannot be used here. Translations by Momoh Koroma and Joseph A. Opala.
A wohkoh, mu mohne; kambei ya le; li lee tohmbe.
A wohkoh, mu mohne; kambei ya le; li lee ka.
Ha sa wuli nggo, sihan, kpangga li lee.
Ha sa wuli nggo, ndeli, ndi, ka.
Ha sa wuli nggo, sihan, kuhan ndayia.
A wa kaka, mu mohne; kambei ya le'i tambee.
A wa kaka, mu mohne; kambei ya le'i, lii i lei kaka.
So ha a guli wohloh, i sihan, yey kpanggaaa a lohlohhu lee.
So ha a guli wohloh; ndi lei; ndo lei, kaka.
So ha a guli wohloh, i sihan; kuhan ma wo ndayia ley.
Come quickly, let us work hard; the grave is not yet finished; his heart (the deceased's) is not yet perfectly cool (at peace).
Come quickly, let us work hard; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be cool at once.
Sudden death cuts down the trees, borrows them; the remains disappear slowly.
Sudden death cuts down the trees; let it (death) be satisfied, let is be satisfied, at once.
Sudden death cuts down the trees, borrows them; a voice speaks from afar.
Dillard, J.L. Black English. New York: Random House, 1972.
Hair, P.E.H. "Sierra Leone Items in the Gullah Dialect of American English." Sierra Leone Language Review, 4 (1965), 79-84.
Hamer, Philip M. and George C. Rogers, et. al. (eds). The Papers of Henry Laurens (6 vols.). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968-1980.
Hancock, Ian F. "A Provisional Comparison of the English-based Atlantic Creoles." Sierra Leone Language Review, 8 (1969), 7-72.
Hancock, Ian F. "Gullah and Barbadian: Origins and Relationships." American Speech, 55(1)(1980), 17-35.
Hancock, Ian F. The Texas Seminoles and Their Language. Austin: University of Texas African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, Series 2, No. 1, 1980.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Littlefield, Daniel E. Africans and Seminoles. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1977.
Opala, Joseph A. A Brief History of the Seminole Freedmen. Austin: University of Texas African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, Series 2, No. 3, 1980.
Opala, Joseph A. "Seminole-African Relations on the Florida Frontier." Papers in Anthropology (University of Oklahoma), 22 (1) (1981), 11-52.
Opala, Joseph A. "Sierra Leone: the Gullah Connection." (interview) West Africa, May 19, 1986, 1046-1048.
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. The Negro on the American Frontier. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1971.
Turner, Lorenzo D. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. (1949) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973.
Wallace, David Duncan. The Life of Henry Laurens. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1760 Through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974.
Update: The Sierra-Leone/Gullah Connection:
This booklet has helped to launch a series of exchanges and person-to-person contacts between Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs. Since its original publication in 1987, the following events have taken place:
1987 Joko Sengova, a Sierra Leonean linguist, conducted research on the Gullah language, while based at the University of Georgia.
1987 A.J.G. Wyse, a Sierra Leonean historian, conducted research on the slave trade in Colonial South Carolina, while based at the University of South Carolina.
1988 Cyrus Macfoy, a Sierra Leonean ethnobotanist, conducted research in South Carolina and Georgia on Gullah traditional herbal medicine.
(All three scholars participated in the Fullbright African Senior Research Scholar Program.)
1988 Former President Joseph Saidu Momoh visited the Gullah community on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, on his first official visit to the U.S.
1989 A delegation of thirteen Gullahs and Black Seminoles made an historic "Homecoming Visit" to Sierra Leone, as guests of the Sierra Leone government.
1989 A U.S. National Park Service team surveyed Bunce Island, and issued a report making recommendations for its preservation.
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